The 5 plaintiffs are asking for $5.2 billion in damages
Company prepares to fight OxyContin lawsuit
Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful painkiller, filed documents to have the suit transferred to U.S. District Court.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
The Roanoke Times
The company that makes OxyContin issued a sharply worded response Wednesday to a lawsuit claiming that countless Southwest Virginians have fallen victim to addiction, suffering and death caused by the prescription painkiller.
Abingdon attorney William Eskridge, who represents Purdue Pharma, said the lawsuit filed last month in Lee County Circuit Court is "irresponsible, unfounded and legally flawed."
Purdue Pharma also filed court documents to have the $5.2 billion lawsuit transferred to U.S. District Court in Big Stone Gap.
In what is expected to become a key issue in the case, the company maintained that anyone who used its product illegally should be barred from recovering damages. Most OxyContin addicts do not use the potent painkiller in the way it is prescribed, instead crushing the pills into a powder that is snorted or injected for a heroin-like high.
Teresa Bright, one of five plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, claimed to have become addicted after using OxyContin that was prescribed to her husband. Bright's "own illegal conduct" is the sole cause of her problem, Purdue Pharma maintained in court papers.
Yet A.F. McCaulley, a retired coal miner who filed suit along with Bright, claimed he got hooked after taking just one pill that was prescribed to him for shoulder pain.
Attorneys who filed the suit say that many more people like McCaulley are expected to join in what they are seeking to make a class action suit. The lawsuit accuses Purdue Pharma of marketing the drug excessively while underplaying how addictive it is.
While acknowledging that abuse of OxyContin is a problem, Purdue Pharma has insisted that the drug works wonders when used properly.
"At the heart of this litigation is a transparent effort to demonize Purdue Pharma and exploit the adverse publicity surrounding OxyContin, which will only end up hurting legitimate pain patients," Eskridge said.
Strother Smith, an Abingdon attorney who filed the suit, said Lee County was chosen as a venue because it has been especially hard hit by crime and fatal overdoses linked to OxyContin. Purdue Pharma maintains that federal court is the proper setting because the painkiller is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The company also objects to the lawsuit being broadened to represent anyone harmed by the drug. Class action lawsuits cannot be brought in state court, it maintained in documents filed this week. However, they are allowed in federal court, where the case may be headed.
Since 1998, there have been at least 43 fatal overdoses in Western Virginia attributed to oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin. Crime committed by addicts has increased dramatically in far Southwest Virginia, and some in law enforcement say the problem appears to be infiltrating larger cities as well.
Purdue Pharma has taken steps to limit abuse, including pulling its most powerful, 160-milligram pill off the market. But it has pledged to continue providing smaller doses of the drug to patients - despite lawsuits that have been filed in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
"Any attempt by lawyers to try and dictate to patients and physicians what medication they should have is an affront to sound medical care," Eskridge said.